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Tuesday, October 26, 1999 Published at 23:05 GMT 00:05 UK

Suzuka's sting in the tail

Will the 'Ready Eddie Go' party continue in Japan?

BBC motor racing correspondent Jonathan Legard says it has been an extraordinary Formula One season which is likely to end in the most unexpected way - just don't ask him to predict how

When Eddie Irvine started 1999 he'd never won a Grand Prix. Now he's on the verge of becoming Britain's ninth world champion, driving for the most famous team in the world.

BBC Motor racing correspondent Jonathan Legard: "McLaren already look like runners-up"
Cry "Foul!", cry "Fix!" if you want at the Appeal Court verdict in Paris - and predicting that decision was on a par with tipping Irvine for the title last March - but it continues a run of luck for the Ulsterman that makes you wonder if someone, somewhere has decided it's his year.

Since Michael Schumacher broke his leg at Silverstone, Irvine has never been more than two points adrift of Mika Hakkinen.

Now he's four points ahead. And if he wins at Suzuka, his favourite track and where he made his F1 debut in 1993, he'll have beaten Schumacher to the glory that Ferrari have chased since 1979.

Every race for the past few weeks Irvine's been reciting the same mantra.

"I don't care what happens here, as long as I'm in a position to win the championship at Suzuka, that's the important thing."

[ image: Irvine's arrogance means he has few friends on the circuit]
Irvine's arrogance means he has few friends on the circuit
His mentor, the late James Hunt, who won the title so unexpectedly against Niki Lauda in 1976, would surely have approved of such a cool approach.

That's usually Mika Hakkinen's style but the tears after his spin at Monza and his bedraggled state after the Malaysia Grand Prix suggest the nerves ends are fraying like he never expected.

Irvine is like no other rival. Hakkinen can't seem to understand him, let alone shake him off. The Paris judgment will tighten the screw even futher.

The McLaren man put a brave face on the news, but he sounded like he was going to have to carry his car round Suzuka not drive it.

"The events of the last week are now behind us and I am, as always, focussing on the next race," he said.

"I am looking forward to the Japanese Grand Prix and I will do my best to win the race and the world championship."

[ image: Irvine slides out of the European Gran Prix at the Nurburgring]
Irvine slides out of the European Gran Prix at the Nurburgring
The words of his team boss, Ron Dennis, emphasised how upset McLaren were by the decision. "Surprised" and "disappointed" but "determined to win the Drivers and the Constructors Championship."

Outfoxed in the courtroom, McLaren have to ensure they're not outmanoeuvred on the track.

Hakkinen proved last year, at the Nurburgring and Suzuka, that he can make pressure work to his advantage but much of that gloss has been tarnished by team mistakes and unreliability this time round.

And the biggest threat of all, Michael Schumacher, seems as fresh as a daisy, and judging by his comeback performance in Malaysia, will be true to his word and help Irvine to the title.

In the contest between running mates, Schumacher against David Coulthard, there looks to be only one winner.

If only because, unlike Irvine, Coulthard's been starved of luck all year.

Crazy chicane

Out of 15 races so far, only one - McLaren's 1-2 finish in Spain - has been straightforward.

Otherwise it's been an extraordinary switchback season that's defied logic and criticism alike.

And it's hard to believe that Suzuka '99 won't have a sting in the tail.

Irvine's luck running out perhaps with a rare non finish. Hakkinen storming to victory and the title. Coulthard spoiling Ferrari's best laid plans. Or even Damon Hill winning on his last F1 appearance.

Faced by the theat of Michael Schumacher running over my bare feet or making a prediction, I'll opt for the "Ready Eddie Go" party.

Hakkinen and McLaren deserve better but that may not be enough.

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Formula 1 Contents

In this section

Toyota set to join F1

Irvine's $2m miss

Hakkinen crowned F1 champion

Finn toasts team success

1999 Championship standings

Ferrari dream in tatters

F1's emotional champion

Dreams shattered in Irvine's home village

Grand Prix's favourite son

Mika's glory: Japanese GP in pictures

Top cat Eddie

The best man won

Damon Hill: An F1 career in pictures

Silverstone to stage F1 Easter parade